In the same way that Stupich refuses to photograph Red-Desert-the-unpeopled-fiction, Proulx refuses to write about Wyoming-the-dream -- Yellowstone geysers, the Tetons at sunset, rugged cowboys riding the range. That people should be so caught up in prettiness and myth is a kind of ignorance, and it maddens her; she traffics in Wyoming-the-reality -- "full of poor, hardworking transients," as she writes in her second of three volumes of Wyoming short stories. "Tough as nails and restless, going where the dollars grew.
Proulx moved to Wyoming from Vermont in 1994 and right away went about challenging the notion that you can't know the West -- or write about it -- unless you were born and raised here. Close Range: Wyoming Stories, the collection that includes "Brokeback Mountain," came out in 1999 to acclaim from critics who invariably used words like "gritty" and "hardscrabble" and "flinty" to describe Proulx's characters -- people as trapped in the terrible dramas of their small lives as in the boom-bust cycles endemic to rural places in general and Wyoming in particular.
She lives alone six miles from Saratoga, a ranch town flanked by hay fields and blessed with a view to the east of the Snowy Range. The road to town becomes impassable in snow, she says, so she spends winter months in warmer places -- this year, Albuquerque. She moved here two years ago from Centennial, 40 miles to the southeast -- a nice town, she says. But she had to belong to a homeowners' association there, and that was an unsustainable arrangement. This is a woman who admitted 15 years ago in an interview to "throwing a knife at (and thank God missing) someone I thought I hated."
"I'm not a good person for rules and regulations on how I live," she says, walking slowly, hands in pockets, toward the North Platte, which flows through her property.
Proulx wears a simple white linen shirt and no makeup and keeps her salt-and-pepper hair cropped short. She is still getting to know this new home, all 640 acres of it, and keeps a pair of binoculars close at hand. She is always looking up at the sky. "Ospreys you are not very likely to see on this stretch of river, because we have two sets of eagles," she says. "Each raptor seems to have a territory that's respected by the others."
This is what her stories are built on -- research and close observation of place. "Landscape is the driving force for everything that I write," she says. "It was for the Red Desert book and it is for all of the fiction. Place comes first -- what is this place, what makes it this way, what is the geology, what is the prevailing climate, what's the weather like, how do people make a living, what grows here, what animals are here. All of this stuff I do first, and then the stories just are there because the place dictates what happens."
Red Desert, which went on sale in December, comes on the heels of Fine Just The Way It Is, Proulx's final book, she says, of Wyoming stories, published in September. The title is taken from a typically clipped declarative used by a rancher in the book to describe Wyomingites' aversion to change. The stories are set largely in and around the Red Desert, and their darkness and stripped-down characters grow out of the country's harshness and history. In one story, Hi Alcorn, a failed Red Desert farmer desperate for work during the Great Depression, goes to work for a man named Fenk, catching wild horses in the desert, driving them to a railhead in Wamsutter, selling them off for chicken feed. The job sickens Hi:
"Fenk had a dozen tricks to slow chicken horses down on the drive to the railroad. He would catch a horse, make a slit in a nostril, run a length of rawhide through and tie it closed, reducing the animal's oxygen intake. Or he would tie two horses together, or tie one to a broke saddle horse. A few got a big metal nut tied into their forelocks, the constant hit of the sharp-corner nut causing enough pain to slow them down. The ones who moved too quickly with front hobbles got side hobbles. And obstreperous horses that continued to fight to get free despite everything he gutshot."
Every detail is true, Proulx says, gleaned from the memoirs and journals of people who made their living this way.
In the story, Hi quits in disgust and goes to work in the coal mines. He misses, however, "riding up on ridges and mesas to spy out bands of wild horses, plodding through the sand dunes, seeing burrowing owls in a prairie dog town. …" He joins Fenk for a last horse-trapping drive and suffers a kick from a rearing buckskin that busts his leg.
Joking and laughing all the way home, he assures his wife he's fine and will be back for dinner after a visit to the hospital. But by the time Fenk gets him to the doctor, Hi's not laughing anymore: A blood clot has killed him.
"Life," Proulx says, elbow resting on the table, her chin tucked into its crook, "is not really happy for most people. There are fleeting moments and ecstatic times, but by and large life is not a joyride. There are lots of problems, lots of difficulties to be solved, especially for rural people."